the chronicles of a House Elf: my first 1.5 months as a House Officer in Singapore + the harsh realities of being a junior doctor

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This is part of an ongoing monthly series capturing the highs, low (and everything in between) in my life as a freelance doctor working in Singapore. If you’re interested in finding out about medical/non-medical careers or getting answers to doctoring-related questions, check out my Chasing Careers series!

Hello there, and welcome to the first instalment of my latest series, the Chronicles of a House Elf, a not-particularly-detailed recounting of my year as a House Officer in Singapore (in an ideal world, I would include more details, but I treasure my job and honestly can’t afford to get fired) and life lessons I’m learning along the way. Bonus points if you recognise the 2 books I’m referencing in the title of this series.

I decided to start this series as there’s a dearth of information about what the reality of being a junior doctor in Singapore is, and most of my peers/seniors won’t ever write publicly about their experiences because they’re either too busy being overworked or fear of retaliation/their career prospects being affected (here’s my legal disclaimer for kicks). But I’ve been blessed with this platform, and given that my audience is mostly prospective medical students/their parents, it’s extremely important to provide my own side of the story, so you’ll be more well-informed before you commit to this career/life path for the next 11 years (5 years of med school + House Officer year + 5 years of MOHH bond that costs ~$525k)

I’m not gonna lie, the first 1.5 months as a House Officer (I won’t specify where cos idw to get into trouble with my department, but just check my LinkedIn to find out lol) hasn’t been the easiest, but it could have gone far worse, so I’m still grateful overall. There’s been a lot of adjusting to this new way of life:

  • Working 12-hour days 5 days a week, which is considered excellent working hours in comparison to my friends regularly pulling 15-hour days in certain specialties (cough Gen Surg cough). Most specialties don’t even get full weekends off, so I’m extremely grateful that my current department places a strong emphasis on work-life balance. :’) Junior doctors are technically entitled to ‘1 in 7’, which means 1 day off a week, which is indeed what most of my friends are getting. But I’ve heard rare horror stories of people pulling 6.5 day work weeks (done off the books/unofficially, due to manpower constraints), which is a recipe for burnout and fatigue.
  • Constantly packing my duffel bag to spend nights in hospital, pulling 30-hour shifts with alarming regularity. I did 3 calls (30-hour shifts) just this week: Monday/Thursday/Sunday (which is tomorrow), with only half a day to recover/rest before another call or full day at work. Such long shifts are pretty dangerous for both the doctors and patients, but it doesn’t seem like this call system is going to be changed anytime soon (NUH IM and GS have a night float system, which is excellent; wish other places could implement it too), which is very unfortunate.
  • The amount of physical and mental strain on any and every junior doctor cannot be understated. Working 80-100+ hours a week should not ever be normalised or accepted (in any job, not just doctoring), although the local healthcare system has pretty much made it the norm, with some doctors going as far as to glamourise it and brag about working longer hours than their peers. WHO recently published an article (May 2021) stating that ‘working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.’ But I guess that works out fine, since doctors know how to treat themselves when they suffer strokes or get heart disease from overwork? 🙃 🙃 🙃

Enough of me sounding jaded and trying to address the systemic issues that plague the local system, because that’s a whole can of worms I don’t have time to thoroughly delve into at the moment, but I’ll be writing an in-depth article on it after Housemanship year.

Settling into Housemanship over the past 1.5 months has been an exciting and challenging time. It’s like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, only that we have no option to sink (because we’re bonded to MOHH for 5 years/$525k++, which only begins after HOship), and the pool is filled with lava instead of chlorine water. Jokes aside, it’s taught me efficient time management, learning how to say no and how to put myself first. It’s far too easy to get burnt out in this system of constant overwork, and neglect yourself (skipping lunch, not hydrating adequately, staying longer hours than required), so you need to make yourself your #1 priority and speak up/make your own needs known!

Self-care has also become an even more prominent part of my life. Even in med school, I’ve been someone who puts self-care/personal welfare over studies, and it’s served me well during Housemanship. After work, or after ending a 30-hour call/shift, I devote time to exercising, being around nature and my hobbies – anything to help me detox from work and feel rejuvenated.

I’ve committed to going to the beach on the 25/26th of each month of my House Officer year, to celebrate completing yet another month of work/slavery (because our Housemanship started on the 26th and will end on 25th April next year). It’s just a silly yet personally meaningful way to help myself get to the end of each month, but I’ll take whatever I can get!

Speaking of detoxing from work, compartmentalisation is also extremely important in ensuring work-life balance. I’ve seen too many doctors (at all levels of seniority) obsess over their patients and take their work home. While doctors can’t physically take their work home, a lot of them still think about their patients or get anxious about whether their patient is doing alright even at 9pm, when they should be spending time enjoying their time away from work or spending time with their family. I’m sure some doctors reading this would probably scorn and judge me for ‘not caring enough’ about my patients, but I’m someone who prioritises work-life balance, and it’s not like thinking about my patient when I’m not physically at work will affect patients outcomes. You just need to trust the doctors on call overnight to be able to handle the patients, so you can get a proper night’s rest and feel rejuvenated to give your best at work the next morning.

Ironically, now that I have even less free time, it’s made me acutely aware of my desire to spend quality time with the special people in my life. And at the risk of sounding very cheesy and contrived, seeing some of my patients with terminal cancer has made me reflect on my own mortality (and those of my loved ones), and there’s honestly no amount of career success, money or fame that can turn back the clock and let you make up for lost time. So spend time with the ones that matter and make them a priority before it’s too late. That’s another major reason why I’m dropping out of the rat race; you can read more about it in another piece I wrote.

This sentimental love ballad by Julia Michaels is my song rec of the month:

But little did I know
You would be the one I confide in
Learn how to try with
Little did I know
It was you before I ever decided

It’s my 24th birthday today, so enough of me typing and facing a laptop screen – I’m going out to seize the day and enjoy my off day before I head back to work for another 30-hour shift tomorrow (Sunday)!

I’ll try to regularly update y’all about my life as a House Officer (junior doctor) and wherever life takes me after Housemanship year, so be sure to follow my Insta or Facebook page to stay up to date with my latest posts and life updates!


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P.S. This blog is my passion project and self-funded, so if you enjoy my writing and want to contribute some spare change towards my annual WordPress Premium plan, why not make a little donation here? 🙂

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If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, doctoring, psychology, random musings), or check out my most read series below:

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